#38: Radical Empathy

If there is one thing that I have seen missing more and more in the world it is the willingness to take into account the feelings, thoughts, and perspectives of another living being. Too much of what is going on around us seems more and more built on the rejection of the perspectives of others.

Maybe technology is to blame. Maybe it is modernity in general. Maybe it is the lack of education in philosophy, theology, history, other cultures, anything that would communicate that your way of thinking and feeling is not the only way of thinking and feeling in the world; and even if you might think someone else is deeply wrong, you need to check that impulse and accept the – very uncomfortable – notion that to expect others to agree with you is rather self-centered.

We can only truly engage with others once we accept, even embrace, their otherness. We are all different. We are also all the same in many ways, but we are mostly the same in not being the same. How I see the world is surely not how you see it, and that is sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing, but it is also fantastic. How boring, how one-sided a world we would live in if everyone thought and felt like us.

This understanding, and this embrace of the other, this connection, this empathy, all this is helpful in guiding our own path through a world that is not centered around us. But it is also teaching us another thing that is in short supply nowadays: Humility. Recognize your limitations, and accept that you are not alone in the world. What sounds banal can apparently be difficult. How does what I do affect others? How can I learn from those I completely disagree with? How can I see myself, as an individual, as a part of a community of individuals? How is that enriching us all, but also myself?

This empathy needs to be radical; it is a form of love, of unlimited love. We indeed should work at being radical in our empathy, radical in our compassion, radical in our love – because we can only be accepted ourselves by the world if we accept it, and everyone that lives in it, in return. Otherwise, we will just be in a bubble, a cage of our own choosing; unable to truly be in the world, we would be building a prison for ourselves, seeing disconnection where there needs to be connection, seeing hopelessness instead of hope, seeing difference instead of commonality.

This may be a bit preachy, but so be it.

#37: Coronavirus, the Amfortas Wound?

In Wagner’s Parsifal, king Amfortas, who guards the grail, has a wound that does not heal. It has been inflicted by the (evil) sorcerer Klingsor who has used the king’s own spear against him. The grail may help, but there are difficulties.

Is this maybe a good metaphor for the Coronavirus? The virus has appeared first in China, which is something that can happen in any country, but then the Communist government denied, falsified and manipulated information (Klingsor, check) – which is something that should not happen (Again, my critique here aims at the government, not the people).

Then, of course, almost every single country (with the exception of maybe Taiwan, but in all cases, time will tell) found ingenious ways to handle the outbreak in ways it should not have. The wound, though initially inflicted from outside, had now an own component, we have afflicted ourselves by lacking preparation, equipment, procedures, imperfect implementation of protective measures, and finally, lack of discipline, and of course, plain old stupidity and hubris (which all humans can do very well, no matter where they are from).

Now, that we are timidly trying to return back to some sort of life, the virus seems to be an expert at exploiting the slightest weakness we will show in opening back up. Each opening seems to provoke a rise in cases, and even hospitalizations, then we’ll have to lock up again, to open again, etc.

Is this our future till the vaccine? Is this an Amfortas wound that will not heal till the holy grail, the vaccine, will succeed? I hope not, because Parsifal – pace Wagner – is thinly veiled Christian eschatological allegory, but it is thus about hope and faith, not science. We cannot will the vaccine into being. We need to protect ourselves and each other. We will need to somehow start living with this nightmare.

But maybe hope is not a bad strategy: without hope that the wound will eventually heal, we would not get the energy to get over it. Thus let us hope, and try, just try, to focus on the better angels of our nature. We are all, the entire planet, in this together.

#36: Diversity Is Democracy, and It Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

When we promote diversity, what does that mean? As laid out previously, the support for diversity is a matter of equity, of justice. We are already a diverse society qua populace and history, but how this maps onto some domains of life can be seen as not as equitable as it should.

If some individuals get to be individuals, and treated as such, and others are primarily treated as members of an arbitrarily constructed group, there cannot be equity. Our society is built on the idea that individuals matter as the smallest building blocks of society, that those individuals become citizens in a society that values them, that they subscribe to an unwritten social contract that allows them participation and success in society if they follow the rules laid upon them. Citizens are both rule-takers and rule-givers. Citizens of a democratic republic are the sovereign, they are the rulers, not the ruled. This needs to be true for all of us that via our constitution hold the legal right to be called citizens.

Those who are considered citizens in the past have been a smaller group than now, and this has historical reason, of course, which we are working to overcome. We can achieve this only by rejecting the paradigm of unequal treatment, and by providing a level playing field for all. This cannot be a zero-sum game in which someone’s win has to be someone else’s loss. This is the thinking of the past. We need to work together to eliminate any kind of bias so that what Audre Lorde has called for becomes true, namely that there should be no hierarchy of oppressions.

The promotion of diversity can only mean that everyone is benefiting from this; otherwise, the result will be unproductive tokenism, resentment, push-back, and ultimate failure. Too often, just as there is corporate green-washing (the pretense of ecological investment), there is diversity-pretense, which is just the ticking-off of some hiring boxes in order to make corporations pretend to be more interested in democracy than they are.

Diversity work is equity work; the point of equity is that it should enable true equality; thus the end goal is democracy, and the promotion of true citizenship.

History tells us the lessons to learn from division. Eventually, we all share the same planet, and need to live together as equals.

#35: What Is Social Constructivism?

The key to understanding the idea that there may be no such thing as human “races,” but that there is racism, is the concept of social constructivism.

Human beings do not access reality directly, but through mental concepts about what we perceive. These concepts are usually transmitted through various means of communication. There is a difference between what is out there (objective reality), what we perceive about it (phenomenology, from the Greek word for appearance), how we sort out this kind of knowledge (epistemology, from the Greek word for knowledge), how we contextualize it into a domain of knowledge (theology, from the Greek word for gods; or philosophy, from the Greek word for the love of wisdom; or science, from the Latin word for knowledge). These knowledge domains sometimes compete with each other, but more often than not, they can cooperate.

Science, humanities and religion have worked together more frequently than we would assume. All have one approach in common: In order to deal with the difficulty that we cannot access reality directly but only through mediation via our senses or our instruments, we create a model of reality in our minds. These models may or may not directly map onto reality directly, but they can be helpful in certain situations. One of these approaches to model reality is the creation of mental constructs, which may be shared throughout a specific culture or society. These concepts are artificial, but ideally not arbitrary. Language is such a model. Linguistics tells us that there is a relation between an object and the descriptor, but that this relation is entirely arbitrary. Some words (like “bump”) may mimic a phenomenon, but not all do, and how a specific language chooses to represent a specific phenomenon varies from language to language.

Whether language is the key to human thinking can be debated. One school of thought certainly believes that, and sees in the way we use language a key to what we are thinking; and sees our thinking eventually tied to our doing. That may sound plausible, but skepticism is also possible, especially when similar actions can occur across cultures despite the use of completely different languages. Furthermore, there is a hot debate over how much our actions are influenced by our thinking, or in how far our thinking just serves a justification of our actions. (Personally, I tend to be skeptical with regards to how language influences thinking, and how thinking actually influences action. Human beings may be much more instinctual and unreflective about their actions than we would care to admit. But my feelings here are beside the point.)

How we utilize language is not the problem, but that our mental assumptions about and models and constructions of the world around us – constructed culturally and socially – can indeed exist quite independently from objective reality. Human beings, like probably most living things, are pattern-seeking creatures, so that we overcorrect for danger (mistaking a bush for a tiger saves a life) rather than to underestimate it to our detriment (mistaking a tiger for a bush may kill you).

We see faces and shapes in the clouds, in rocks, in the sea, in the stars. There is no science to Zodiac signs, and still many otherwise intelligent people claim to believe in them as the basis for astrology. The typical “white” person has a skin color ranging from extreme pale to rosy to red to brown, and still we use the term “white.” Hardly any black person is literally black, and we still use that term. Biology says that “race” does not exist in humans, and yet we think it to be meaningful enough to discriminate against people. This is all about ideology, about constructions of power.

Biological men and biological women are rather similar in most aspects, especially very early and very late in life (when hormonal differences are less important), and yet we proclaim to see essential differences. Boys used to wear pink, and still we think of pink now as a feminine color. Whether you get sick or not may not be up to you, and we still judge people for it. Unless you die young, we all age, and yet discriminate against the old as somehow different people.

We differentiate between people and think in differences because that may well somehow be how we function as humans; but what kind of categories are important may well be arbitrary. Mountains exist, but whether they are considered holy or should be hollowed out for mining depends on what value we attribute to them. What makes big islands like New Zealand and Greenland an island but Australia and Antarctica a continent, and what makes Europe-Asia-Africa three, and America sometimes one, two or three continents, is anyone’s guess. We know that no serious scientist or educated person after the 5th Century BC believed that the Earth was flat, but the lie that people before the 19th century believed the Earth was flat perpetuates our imaginations still because it makes us feel good as somehow advanced, and that’s why Washington Irving invented it.

All of this shows that there are some mental models, or constructions, that we believe in as real, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. If they guide society, they can be called social constructions. The reality and the phenomena behind them may well be real, but we over-exaggerate their meaning and, in effect, create a difference that holds a meaning to us that – in reality – it should not.

#34: What is White Privilege?

Racism is the belief in essential differences between human beings based on a set of superficial characteristics. While race is not real, racism is, and it centers on the idea of who has relative privilege in specific contexts. “Whiteness” is a category of assumed neutrality, which brings with it the unearned advantage of less discrimination. This is what “white privilege” means, nothing else.

“White privilege” does not mean that a person seen as “white” is overall privileged in life. It only means that in relation to those seen as non-white, they do not have to worry about a set of things that they would have to worry about if they were not white. I find Peggy Mackintosh’s list helpful, because it is not overstuffing the concept with ideology and shows that this is not an abstract concept but a very concrete one.

Do you stand out frequently, and not in a positive way? Are you frequently seen as the representative of a group rather than an individual? Is your ascribed group identity defining you more than it should? Fanon calls this being “overdetermined from without” – you, as an individual, have white privilege if you can most if not all the time successfully insist on seeing yourself, and being seen by others, as an individual.

A better and more generalizable term could be “normalcy privilege” or something of the sort. Do you have a reasonable assumption in life that in spite of how you look, in spite of your biology, in spite of who you love and how much money you have, how much wealth your family has, how old you are, how physically able you are, in spite of all of it, if you try hard, work hard, and do the very best you can, that you can succeed? Or are there unnecessary roadblocks in life that stand in the way of this basic promise of meritocracy? Of course we are all different; but should some differences really matter in the way they do?

The point of the discussion about white privilege is thus not “white shaming” or guilt-tripping; it is to lay the path for a more equitable society in which the basic principle of individual freedom is supported throughout all walks of life. Recognizing who has relative privilege and who has not is the first step to making sure that we can, indeed, make sure that those who apply themselves will be rewarded for their efforts.